[6 June 2002]
“As the dance floor itself became a site where the African-American diaspora reintegrated with itself, Gamble and Huff created a soundtrack aimed at repairing and sustaining communal relations across the chasms of class and geography.”
—What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999)
For Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, Philadelphia International Records (PIR) was always more than a record company. Though they were the most visible practitioners of “Philly Soul” the music of PIR was as much a social movement with Gamble’s pseudo-political uplift narratives finding a space on the album jackets of their artists and in the lyrics, he often wrote for those artists. Artists such as The O’Jay’s (“For the Love of Money” and “Give the People What They Want”), Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (“Wake Up Everybody” and “Be for Real”), the Intruders (“I’ll Always Love My Mama”) and McFadden and Whitehead (“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”) became the musical mouthpieces for Gamble and Huff’s belief that the “revolution” (spinning at 33 1/3 rpms) would be broadcast on radio stations and mixed on dance floors across the nation. Producer Tom Moulton, was a willing conspirator in Gamble and Huff’s dance floor revolution and Philadelphia Classics (originally released in 1977) showcased Moulton’s extended remixes of some of PIR’s most classic sides.
Moulton was first approached by Harry Chipetz, general manager of Sigma Sound Studios, where Gamble and Huff et al did most of their magic, to mix one of PIRs songs as a way to introduce his skills to the creative giants. That song was People Choice’s bumping groove “Do It Any Way You Wanna,” notable because the song is one of the few PIR hits that lacks PIR’s signature string arrangements (often courtesy of Bobby Martin). Originally released in 1975, a previously unreleased five-minute version of the song is included on the reissued Philadelphia Classics. It was also Chipetz, who suggested that Moultan embark on the full-length remix project that would eventually become Philadelphia Classics.
MFSB’s “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)” is one of Gamble and Huff’s most memorable tunes, topping both the R&B and pop charts in early 1974 and becoming the theme song for Don Cornelius’ Soul Train program. MFSB was the PIR house band (an orchestra really) featuring among others Earl Young on drums, Norman Harris and Roland Chambers on guitar, bassist Ronnie Baker, and Vince Montana on Vibes. The group debuted in 1973 with MFSB (also just reissued by Sony/Legacy) which featured instrumental covers of the O’Jays “Backstabbers”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”, and “Lay in Low” which later became the instrumental backing of Teddy Pendergrass’ intro sermon on the Blue Notes’ “Be for Real”. “T.S.O.P.”, which featured the backing vocals of PIR “girl” group the Three Degrees (whose remixed “Dirty Ol’ Man” is also included on Philadephia Classics) was the lead single of the group’s follow-up Love is the Message (1974).
Though the title track didn’t even chart in the R&B Top-40 upon its release, it was Moulton’s 11-minute plus remix of the song that would take on a life of its own. As Nelson George relates in Hip Hop America (1998), “On a hot summer night in about 1977 a mobile jock with gigantic speakers and an ego to match introduced me to two records that were not just simply fly, progressive things to play, but that twenty years later, still help define hip-hop.” According to George, “Trans Europe Express” and “Love is the Message” was the music “of people who voted for Jimmy Carter and feared Ronald Reagan. It was the music of people who did the Hustle on asphalt in the summer wearing Converse and espadrilles; it was the music of a city nearly bankrupt yet found millions to remodel Yankee stadium . . . it was the music of an aesthetic in transition.”
For the remix, Moultan extended the “break” section that appeared on the original including recording a new Fender solo for the part. It was Leon Huff who unwittingly recorded the new electric piano solo. According to Moulton “I didn’t want Huff to know we were actually gonna record a new part . . . I got on the stepladder and loosened the ‘Record’ bulb,” adding that “afterwards, Huff shook his head and said he didn’t think it was gonna work.” (reissue linear notes) Of course neither Moulton or Huff (or George for that matter), were aware of the young black and Latino men, up in Harlem, N.Y. and the Boogie-down, who liked to spin on their heads to extended break beats like the one Moulton crafted for the remix.
The release of the Philadelphia Classics project coincided with the explosion of disco culture into the mainstream, as the genre had been incubated in the underground years before in dance clubs by black, latino/a and gay populations alongside the music of groups like First Choice (“Smarty Pants”), the Trammps (whose Trammps, 1975, was also just re-issued by Sony/Legacy) and the South Shore Commission (“Free Man”). Philadelphia Classics allowed PIR to take advantage of the moment by re-issuing dance grooves that they already had in the can and had a proven track record. By describing the remixed tracks as Philly “classics” the label was also reminding folks that they were among the trendsetters in the disco movement. Because of their overall dedication to musicianship and quality vocals, PIR managed to escape the ire of mainstream audiences who quickly tired of the repetitive 16-beat formulas that marked much of (bad) disco music (any one remember Dan Hartman’s “Instant Replay”?).
Very often Moultan just added subtle flavors to extend the tracks that obviously allowed for extended grooves, but also a more pleasurable listening experience. A Norman Harris guitar solo was added to the nine minute version of the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and their barely three-minute breakthrough hit “Love Train” (Backstabbers, 1972) is given a new three minute introduction. Similarly, the Mother’s Day anthem “I’ll Always Love My Mama” by the Intruders, was given a new three minute introduction that could stand alone musically on its own (and give jocks three full minutes to give Mother’s Day shout-outs before the vocals started).
Some of the best work done on Philadelphia Classics was done in the service of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Though most audiences are familiar with Thelma Houston’s chitlin n’ grit disco version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1977), the track was originally recorded by the Blue Notes on their classic Wake Up Everybody(1976). Perhaps in response to the break out success of the Houston version, Moultan gives the Blue Notes’ original a brand new flavor. Both versions of the Blue Note song highlight lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ “Marvin Junior-turned Joe Ligon” gospel sensibilities (Junior and Ligon are lead vocalists of the Dells and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, respectively). Nowhere is this more apparent than on Pendergrass’ lead on the “still-brilliant-after-all-these-years” “Bad Luck” (To Be True, 1975). Moultan simply extends the middle of the song two minutes with a string-laden groove. Moultan’s remix tempers the break-neck angel dust pace of the original track, allowing audience to more fully experience and appreciate the genius of Pendergrass’ closing sermon and his brilliant referencing of the Nixon Watergate proceedings. It is in that closing where Pendergrass literally screams the lyrics “I know none of y’all satisfied, satisfied / The way prices has been going up on things / I can barely buy a morning paper But then early one morning I got me a paper / I sat down on my living room floor and opened it up / Guess what I saw? I saw the president of the United States / The man said he wasn’t gonna give it up / He did resign / But he still turned around and left all us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.” As the song begins to fade, Pendergrass can be heard “The only thing that I got that I can hold on to is my God, my good, Jesus be with me and give me good luck, good luck.” The track in unquestionably the strongest of Pendergrass’ performances as a member of the Blue Notes.
The original versions of most of the Philadelphia Classics tracks have been compiled on the just released Philly Super Soul Hits (Sony/Legacy). While P-Diddy Combs can legitimately talk about birthing the era of the hip-hop remix (his remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava in Your Ear” had the same impact of Moulton’s “Love is the Message” remix), Philadelphia Classics is a reminder that folks who held it down at Sigma Sound Studios three decades ago, were the one who truly invented the remix.